Complete Guide on Tattoo Ink

As a new tattoo artist, you want to make sure you buy ink that goes into the skin easy and ages well. Using those high-quality inks combined with proper technique will allow you create impressive, colorful tattoos. Which is why we made this guide so you know what inks you should be using, what ones to avoid and how to tell the difference between the two.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • Where to buy all the professional ink colors you need online
  • Common tattoo ink issues
  • What’s actually in tattoo ink (and if it’s safe)
  • Tips on blending custom colors, advice for tattooing darker skin tones, and more

Where to Buy Tattoo Ink: Our Top Picks

Using professional equipment is important to keeping your clients safe. Here’s the tattoo inks* our professional artists like to use:

*Prices listed at time of publishing

tattoo inks in different shades and pigments
Price: $55

Why We Like It:

  • Vegan friendly
  • Highly pigmented for super saturated colors
  • Good flow rate
  • Made in USA
dark ink by Dynamic brand
Price: $75

Why We Like It:

  • Made with #00 Mixing Solution (hospital-grade water and witch hazel to help with reducing redness and healing)
  • Heals bold and dark
  • Made in USA

Style Tip: Grey wash is important if you want to do black and grey tattoos or realism.

color travel set inks

Solid Ink 25 Color Travel Set

Price: $120

Why We Like Them

  • Vegan, all-natural ingredients
  • Hyper-pigmented
  • Manufactured in Miami, USA

Style Tip: These bright colors are great for illustrative or new school tattoos.

disposable tube with tattoo tips

White Eternal Tattoo Ink 

Price: $11

Why We Like It:

  • Vegan friendly
  • Smooth consistency and high opacity
  • Blends easily with other colors to make new shades
  • Manufactured in Miami, USA

Style Tip: “White-on-black” tattoos are a coverup option that’s growing in popularity. Learn how to do it in our new Guide to Whiteout Techniques.

tattoo inks in different shades and pigments
Price: $55

Why We Like It:

  • Vegan friendly
  • Highly pigmented for super saturated colors
  • Good flow rate
  • Made in USA
Price: $75

Why We Like It:

  • Made with #00 Mixing Solution (hospital-grade water and witch hazel to help with reducing redness and healing)
  • Heals bold and dark
  • Made in USA

Style Tip: Grey wash is important if you want to do black and grey tattoos or realism.

color travel set inks

Solid Ink 25 Color Travel Set

Price: $120

Why We Like Them:

  • Vegan, all-natural ingredients
  • Hyper-pigmented
  • Manufactured in Miami, USA

Style Tip: These bright colors are great for illustrative or new school tattoos.

White Eternal Tattoo Ink

Price: $11

Why We Like Them:

  • Vegan friendly
  • Smooth consistency and high opacity
  • Blends easily with other colors to make new shades
  • Manufactured in Miami, USA

Style Tip: “White-on-black” tattoos are a coverup option that’s growing in popularity. Learn how to do it in our new Guide to Whiteout Techniques.

Making Your Own Tattoo Ink

Some tattoo artists choose to make their own tattoo ink. However, this is a complicated process and there are a lot of opportunities for the ink to get contaminated if you don’t have a completely sterile work space and materials. 

Pre-made inks are generally well made and are constantly becoming safer. In most cases, you’ll save yourself time and your client from potentially bad reactions or complications by purchasing from a reputable brand. 

Can Tattoo Inks “go bad”?

Most inks will be good for about two years after opening them. You’ll always want to toss bottles past their expiration dates or if one of the following is true:

  • The pigment has separated from the carrier fluid and has hardened.
  • The liquid evaporated and the ink has become too thick.
  • It wasn’t stored correctly.
  • You think the ink has been contaminated.

Common Tattoo Ink Issues: Fading, Falling Out, and Spreading

If a tattoo doesn’t turn out as you thought it would, there could be a few different causes:

1

The Ink is Low-Quality

Low quality ink might not be heavily pigmented enough to remain bright.

2

Incorrect Aftercare

If a tattoo artist doesn’t explain how to care for a tattoo to the client, they might not give it enough time to heal, which could lead to ink “falling out.”

3

Time’s Effect on Tattoos

After several years, tattoos will look a little faded compared to when they’re fresh. Additionally, lines thicken and spread over time, which is why some older tattoos look “fuzzy.”

4

The Tattoo’s Application

If you don’t use the right needle depth, you won’t be able to put ink into the skin correctly.. 

The skin has three layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutaneous tissue. Ink holds best in the middle layer, the dermis. If you don’t put ink in deep enough, you’ll only be putting ink into the dermis, and the ink will fade. If you go too deep, you’ll be putting ink into the subcutaneous tissue, which has a more “jelly” consistency, and the ink will spread around. 
right tattoo ink depth

What’s in Tattoo Ink...And is it Safe?

There’s always some risk that clients will react badly to tattoo ink, and those reactions can range from uncomfortable to dangerous. However, knowing which ingredients are safer for skin will help you make better choices while you’re shopping.

Tattoo Ink Has Two Parts: Powder Pigment and Carrier Fluid

People use the words “ink” and “pigment” interchangeably, but there is a difference. Pigment is only the color, and it’s usually a powder. That powder gets mixed with a “carrier fluid,” which gives it the liquid consistency and “carries” the ink into the skin. 

What ingredients are actually in the ink will depend on both the color, as well as the manufacturer. 

Ingredients List: What to Look for on the Label - and What to Avoid

Safe carrier fluids: denatured alcohol, ethanol, glycerin, Listerine, methanol, propylene glycol, purified water, rubbing alcohol, witch hazel. 

Unsafe carrier fluids: formaldehyde, antifreeze, glutaraldehyde.

Pigment ingredients by color*:

  • Black: iron oxide, carbon, naturally occurring bark, iron, nickel
  • Blue: azure blue, specific metal salts like Cu-phthalocyanine, cobalt, copper
  • Brown: ochre, iron
  • Green: metal salts, Cu/Al-phthalocyanine, and Cu-phthalocyanine; malachite; monoazo pigment, aluminum, chromium, copper, lead
  • Orange: natural dyes like disazodiarylide and disazopyrazolone, cadmium
  • Red: iron oxide or synthetic pigments, napatha-derived chemicals, cadmium, iron
  • Yellow: turmeric, ochre, disazodiarlide, cadmium, lead, zinc
  • Violet: quinacridone, diazine/carbazole, manganese violet, aluminum, aluminum salts
  • White: zinc oxide, barium sulfate, titanium dioxide, barium, lead, titanium, zinc

*bolded words indicate heavy metals

Azo chemicals and metal oxides (ferrocyanide and ferricyanide) are also found in many tattoo ink colors. 

It’s hard to avoid chemicals that are (to some extent) considered toxic or cancer-causing. But some of the most problematic are arsenic, lead, cadmium, naphthol, cinnabar, chromium oxide, and cobalt. You’ll find more of these harmful ingredients in knock-off inks, which is why we always recommend buying from a reputable supplier. 

Note:

“Homemade” ink made from ground pencil graphite and shampoo and other unverified “ink recipes” are dangerous. For the most part, these hazards will be fairly obvious.

News: Some countries are banning ink for potentially harmful substances. To learn more check out our article about the UK Tattoo Ink Ban

There are No FDA-Approved Tattoo Inks

Tattoo ink suppliers are currently not required by the FDA to put an ingredients list on their label or website. However, the brands that are transparent about what ingredients they use tend to sell higher-quality inks.

Note:

Because potentially harmful ingredients could be in tattoo ink, it’s up to each individual artist to find ink that they - and their clients - can trust. The best way to stay safe is to buy professional tattoo ink directly from a reputable supplier - not off of Amazon. A lot of the inks on Amazon are cheap knock-offs, and the ink in most tattoo kits are not safe for human skin (even if they say they are).

Health Concerns with Tattoo Inks

Health Concerns with Tattoo Inks

Because tattoo inks are not regulated by the FDA, there hasn’t been much lab testing on them or their long-term effects. However, there are some major health concerns that come along with tattoo ink:

1

Ink in the Bloodstream

Because ink is an “invader” in the skin, the body tries to break down ink particles and get rid of them. Ink particles are too big for the body to break down all the way, but this process can cause some ink to get into the bloodstream and get carried to the lymph nodes (which are part of the immune system). 

Ink - and its toxins - can “sit” in that space, but there’s currently no evidence that it leads to illness.

2

Vitamin D Deficiency

There’s a chance that large tattoos (like blackout tattoos) can keep the body from absorbing enough Vitamin D from the sun. Vitamin D plays a large role in your immune system’s health.

3

Cancer

On top of some tattoo ink ingredients being considered carcinogens, large tattoos can make it harder for healthcare professionals to spot skin cancer. 

This is why it’s important to check with a doctor before tattooing over scars, moles, and other skin irregularities.

Note:

Infections, allergic reactions, keloids, and granulomas can be caused by tattoos. To learn more about skin safety, check out our Guide to Tattoo Safety.

Are Vegan-Friendly Tattoo Inks Healthier?

Vegan tattoo inks do not have any health benefits over normal tattoo ink. The main difference is that it’s made with vegetable-based glycerin instead of glycerin from animal by-products.

Our Tips for Cover Ups, Mixing Colors, Considering Skin Tone, and More

Black Ink

Black ink tends to be thinner than other colors, affecting the amount you’ll need and the speed at which you’ll want to run your tattoo machine. You can also use black ink to make other colors dull and muted. This is great for neotraditional, but not styles that need brighter colors like new school.

White Ink

White is the lightest and the most opaque ink, and it easily gets overpowered by other ink colors or the tone of a person’s skin. That’s why white fades so quickly and why you want to limit the amount of white you use in any design. 

Foundation Flesh Ink

Foundation flesh lets you lighten other ink colors while still keeping them vibrant. (Don’t mix colors with white to lighten them, it will mute out the color.)

Blue and Purple Ink

These colors tend to be the best for cover-ups because the dark pigment is strong enough to be seen over black.

Red Ink

Some clients will have what’s called “Red Reaction.” It’s your job to let your client know that many people have an unpleasant reaction to red ink to protect them (and include it in your waiver to protect you). Red Reaction and is often accompanied by swelling and itching. By making your client aware of this possibility, you are not liable if the tattoo needs to be removed or the client has to receive medical treatment.

Note:

Some yellow and orange ink have the same ingredients (like iron oxide) that cause this type of reaction.

Skin Tone Affects How Ink Shows Up

Clients with darker skin or those who regularly tan might not be satisfied with their colour tattoo, as their skin tone will affect the vibrancy of color or make intricate lines less readable. You’ll want to take the fact that darker skin tone is harder to contrast into consideration when designing for your client. For example, using thicker bold lines and darker tones for better contrast.

Creating Custom Colors

If you want to create a specific color, you can mix ink. We recommend pouring the right measurements of each color into an empty ink cap and mixing it with a sterile needle bar. However, you can also dip the needles into one ink cap and then another to mix the color in the tube while you’re tattooing (this is a more advanced technique). 

Which Colors are the Hardest to Laser Off?

While there’s been some experimentation with removable tattoo ink, currently the only way to get rid of a tattoo is through lasering. 

Dark colors like black, grey, brown, blue, and dark green are the easiest to remove because darker colors absorb more of the laser’s light (and therefore are more affected). Yellow, orange, and pale blue tend to be the toughest, and white ink is impossible to remove (it actually gets darker). 

You’ve Got the Ink...Time to Start Tattooing

No matter what ink you use, it will only look good if you put it in the skin the right way. There’s a lot of advice about tattooing techniques online, but a lot of it is outdated or incorrect, which leads artists to develop bad habits.
Without the right technique, new artists become limited in what designs they can pull off successfully. This not only keeps them from being creative as an artist, it also means they’ll have fewer clients wanting to get tattooed by them, making it harder to leave their current job to follow a career they love. 
Luckily, artists can still learn online without limiting their growth as an artist with the Artist Accelerator Program. 
The Artist Accelerator guides you through the process of learning to tattoo with clear, easy-to-follow lessons taught to you by professional tattoo artists. You’ll learn all the right techniques and build out your portfolio while getting support and personalized feedback on your tattoos in our online Mastermind community. 
Over 2500 students have used the program to break into the tattooing industry all over the world, with many of them having opened up their own shops. 
Learn from home at your own pace and build the skills you need for a career that makes you excited every day…

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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